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St. Petersburg weekend, Thursday and Friday notes

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – There have been a lot of things that have happened today and yesterday at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, the season-opening weekend for the Verizon IndyCar Series, Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires and Pirelli World Challenge.

So, here’s an attempted recap of some of the things beyond the on-track sessions:

VERIZON INDYCAR SERIES

EXTENSIONS, AND A ROAD MAP, ARE GOOD

Frye (center) has been at head of INDYCAR’s recent development and planning. Photo: IndyCar

It’s a good thing the term “five-year plan” isn’t a drinking term because INDYCAR president of competition and operations Jay Frye says “five-year plan” a lot.

But “five-year plan” is a phrase that can stave off a lot of anxiety because it is a phrase that indicates a clear road map, with direction and commitments from the key series stakeholders.

Frye said the word “plan” no less than eight times during today’s press conference confirming the various extensions between Chevrolet, Honda, Firestone and Dallara.

“I think everybody up here has been part of this five-year plan we keep talking about, which is a collaboration of this entire group, as well as everybody in the paddock,” Frye explained.

“It was important we have a path, a destination of where we’re going. As mentioned earlier, the plan in 19 will change things for ’21, ’22, ’23. We’re always looking that far out. Want to make sure everybody has bought into what we’re doing next.”

Paddock reception to the news seemed positive. Michael Andretti said it was beneficial for INDYCAR, as a sanctioning body, to be proactive rather than reactive and said this is what they are trying to do now. Alexander Rossi, who is in a noticeably better and different mindset about IndyCar than this time 12 months ago when he was making his series debut, was equally effusive.

Will Power added similar praise after the Friday press conference: “I think you could see the momentum with the continuity of drivers, teams, manufacturers, tire manufacturers, all that. It shows strength in the series. It really does. There was a time when there was a different set of drivers every year. Now it’s the same group every year, same teams.”

HONDA FAST, BUT LET’S WAIT TIL TOMORROW FOR MORE

DIxon at speed. Photo: Honda

Quite a bit last year, you’d see some Honda teams have decent practice days, but it didn’t necessarily translate to having better qualifying runs.

At St. Petersburg in particular, only Takuma Sato (2015) and Ryan Hunter-Reay (2016) have gotten Hondas into the Firestone Fast Six since the introduction of manufacturer aero kits.

Chip Ganassi Racing Teams certainly had a great second session today with Dixon first, Tony Kanaan third and Charlie Kimball fourth, all in the 1:02 bracket around the 1.8-mile, 14-turn street course. But Dixon cautioned against reading too much into the times.

“It’s Friday. It doesn’t pay anything, doesn’t mean anything,” said the Kiwi. “Hopefully what we learnt today, we can continue on and help improve the car come tomorrow, and more importantly for the race on Sunday.”

PUTTING THE BRAKES ON THE BRAKE TALK?

Is excessive brake temperature and potential brake fade in the race going to be a major topic of conversation this weekend? It depends on who you ask.

Performance Friction’s carbon brakes make their debut this weekend, replacing previously supplier Brembo. Per PFC Director of Motorsports Darrick Dong, PFC had 28 total IndyCar tests prior to their race debut this weekend dating to the middle of last year. PFC was announced as new supplier in September last season; a full intro Q&A is linked here.

The general perception in the paddock is that some Honda teams may have not optimized their cooling to ensure their discs don’t get too hot, whereas the Chevrolet teams might have done a better job in the design process. Will Power, who was second in second practice, said this isn’t the highest track for brake pressures with only two decently long straights and heavy braking points.

“The brakes for me have been fine. It’s not a really high-pressure track,” Power explained. “I think it’s when you go to places like Elkhart Lake, Indy road course, these places where you have massive brake pressure, and you notice the difference.”

SUSIE WHELDON’S NEW SHOP

Susie Wheldon launched the new Verve Boutique store on Central Avenue downtown St. Petersburg on Thursday night. A number of IndyCar drivers and a solid amount of presence from the IndyCar community were there to support the opening for the new store. Wheldon is the widow of the late Dan Wheldon, the two-time Indianapolis 500 champion and 2005 series champion who lost his life at Las Vegas in October 2011. More info on the night here is linked via Brant James of USA Today.

A couple of photos are below:

FUN PREVIEW FROM MOBIL 1 THE GRID

From Mobil 1 The Grid: a preview and a look ahead to this street race:

MAZDA ROAD TO INDY PRESENTED BY COOPER TIRES

Telitz has a debut pole in Indy Lights. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Here are quick notes from this weekend’s preliminary sessions for the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires before their races, which begin tomorrow:

  • History may be on its way to repeating itself in the top rung of the Mazda Road to Indy, Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, if first practice was to be believed. Pato O’Ward, who was only on an announced one-weekend deal last year (at the time) with Team Pelfrey in Pro Mazda and promptly won the first race of the year, led first practice today in his first session of his one-weekend deal (for now, anyway) in Indy Lights. Santiago Urrutia was second with Colton Herta third. The top 13 were covered by just 0.9656 of a second.
  • Come qualifying though and O’Ward was second behind his Pro Mazda title sparring partner last year, Aaron Telitz with Telitz uncorking a late flier in the No. 9 Soul Red Mazda he drives for Belardi Auto Racing. Telitz’s best time of 1:07.5844 nets him a debut pole in his step up to Indy Lights, and fellow American Kyle Kaiser moves into second in the No. 18 Juncos Racing Dallara IL-15 Mazda after O’Ward lost his best time with an accident at Turn 7. In third, Juan Piedrahita has a career-best qualifying run for Team Pelfrey; the Colombian veteran’s previous best was fourth at Sonoma, twice, in 2014.
  • Deltro Energy announced its sponsorship of Herta’s No. 98 Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing entry earlier this week.Based in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, Deltro Energy designs and installs energy storage systems with emerging technologies such as Lithium-ion batteries and fly wheels. The younger Herta, who turns 17 this month and did not race here in 2014 when he last raced full-time in the U.S. in USF2000 because he was too young, also threw out the first pitch at Tuesday’s New York Yankees spring training game, held at nearby George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa. Herta’s got a maturity level beyond his years and told NBC Sports he’s so much happier to be back in an American racing atmosphere, after spending the last two years racing in Europe.
  • Despite a late arrival to the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires grid – a deal which only came together within the last week – Victor Franzoni topped the timesheets in first official practice here for Juncos Racing. His old USF2000 sparring partner Anthony Martin was second with Team Pelfrey’s trio of youngsters third through fifth.
  • The order was reversed in qualifying though, with Mazda scholarship recipient Martin eclipsing Franzoni for pole for the first race. The Australian took his Cape Motorsports Soul Red Mazda to a pole time of 1:13.6718, just 0.012 of a second clear of Franzoni. TJ Fischer and Carlos Cunha were next for Pelfrey with World Speed Motorsports’ Phillippe Denes rounding out the top five.
  • Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda had two qualifying sessions, which feature two different orders. Robert Megennis has his first career pole for Team Pelfrey in race one, and Parker Thompson has the first pole for USF2000 debuting team Exclusive Autosport. Somewhat bizarrely, both drivers set the exact same time but in two different sessions, at a lap of 1:15.3708!
  • It’s been a tough weekend for Newman/Wachs Racing in the team’s return to the open-wheel ladder. The former Atlantic Championship title-winning team has witnessed three accidents, two from Andre Castro and one for Cameron Das, who is in his only confirmed weekend with the team so far. Castro was reportedly distraught after a Thursday accident but got back in on Friday, only to have another accident. Das’ car came back on a truck at the end of the session.

Results from today’s sessions are below:

PIRELLI WORLD CHALLENGE

Aquilante led the GTS field in PWC, Friday at St. Petersburg. Photo: PWC

Here are notes from the Pirelli World Challenge paddock:

  • Expect the GAINSCO/Bob Stallings Racing Porsche 911 GT3 R, the classic “Red Dragon No. 99” car driven by Jon Fogarty, to be a Sprint-weekend only entrant, barring a change of plans from team principal Stallings. The team indicated the desire to be primarily in the Sprint race markets (the five IndyCar weekends) for GAINSCO Auto Insurance agents, and also want to take a “wait-and-see” approach to the SprintX season. The SprintX season starts at Virginia International Raceway at the end of April.
  • Late entrant Daniel Mancinelli, an Italian driver with some GT experience in Italy and elsewhere in Europe, took his No. 31 TR3 Racing Ferrari 488 GT3 to a surprise overall pole position. He was initially classified as a GTA driver (amateur or inexperienced in GT cars status) but later reclassified to GT following a formal evaluation from PWC.
  • Ryan Eversley’s No. 43 RealTime Racing Acura NSX GT3 did not make qualifying after an accident on Thursday, Eversley having hit the wall at Turn 6 in a rare incident for the popular driver out of Georgia who’s become an unofficial resident of Wisconsin in recent years since joining RealTime. Michael Shank Racing is assisting in the repair process by sending some spare parts to Florida to help the rebuild, which will be completed in time for the first GT race to be held on Saturday.
  • Andrew Aquilante took the fifth consecutive victory on the streets of St. Petersburg for the venerable but aging Ford Mustang Boss 302 in PWC GTS race one. Dean Martin and Spencer Pumpelly did so in 2015 with Jack Roush Jr. sweeping last year. This is a one-off weekend for Aquilante and Phoenix Performance, for the moment. Polesitter Lawson Aschenbach took the new Chevrolet Camaro GT4 to second in its race debut for Blackdog Speed Shop with Jade Buford third in one of the Racers Edge SIN R1 GT4s.
  • Speaking of the new Camaro GT4, the Blackdog team showed assembled media around the new car this morning. A full debrief from that will come next week. The Camaro GT4 runs a parallel debut program between PWC and IMSA’s Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge; the Camaro will debut in that series at Circuit of The Americas in May.
  • Audi Tire Center announced an extension with Magnus Racing’s pair of Audi R8 LMS entries, which make their PWC debut this weekend. Pierre Kaffer and John Potter are in the two cars.

Results from today’s sessions are below:

OTHER NOTES

Andretti Autosport’s new hospitality unit is a sight to behold in the paddock. Photo: Tony DiZinno
  • Andretti Autosport premiered its new hospitality unit in the paddock today, which is rather large and dwarfs all others as it has a rooftop viewing area. Michael Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay both joked the hospitality unit needs a name; when the question was posed to Andretti Indy Lights driver Dalton Kellett, the Canadian engineering major and series sophomore joked it should be called “Clifford the Big Red Tent” in reference to Clifford the Big Red Dog, a children’s carton. The tent may not be red, but it is big.
  • On more serious Andretti Autosport matters, team president JF Thormann told NBC Sports he hopes to have the driver for the team’s fifth car for the Indianapolis 500 settled within the next two weeks.
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, which fields the No. 15 Steak ‘n Shake Honda for Graham Rahal this weekend, hosted Special Forces members from MacDill today. RLL’s “Turns for Troops” program continues into 2017; more info on that program is here.
  • Rising Star Racing principal Art Wilmes is here this weekend supporting both of his two primary drivers Spencer Pigot and Neil Alberico, RSR ambassador and “godfather” Josef Newgarden, and Pro Mazda champion and Indy Lights rookie Telitz, who’s had a bit of help from him before. Wilmes said he is working on ensuring Pigot, who’s not currently confirmed for the Indianapolis 500, can land a seat there.
  • On another Rising Star Racing note, several members of the Tampa Bay Lighting were present today for pace car rides, and hung out with RSR’s current primary Indy Lights driver Alberico of Carlin.
  • Ricky Taylor was here today as an interested bystander. Taylor tested for Team Penske last month at Homestead-Miami Speedway, in his IndyCar debut. “It was an absolute blast. Every driver’s goal at one point in their career is to be an IndyCar driver, and it was amazing to get the call to drive a Penske car,” Taylor told IndyCar Radio. “We were doing a two-day test in Sebring with the Cadillac, I said I have to miss one of them. I’m testing a Penske car! Took the test and it was a blast to drive one of these, muscling around.”
  • Verizon has a new pit display branding in pit lane, that takes cues from its previous design and is updated for 2017.
  • Honda’s hospitality – long a paddock staple – continues with additional enhancements including a new awning and several other new elements once inside the tent. The food, as ever, remains excellent.
  • Oriol Servia is here, as is fellow open-wheel veteran Adrian Fernandez. Fernandez said he offers some advice and support to young Mexican drivers while he can, such as Indy Lights driver O’Ward.
  • While rookie Ed Jones made his formal debut on track today in the No. 19 Dale Coyne Racing Honda, three of that car’s four drivers from last year were also either at the track today or en route to it. RC Enerson was here, doing his best to keep his face present in the paddock after his three-race debut last year. Gabby Chaves is here as well, doing the same, while Pippa Mann was en route to St. Petersburg and expects to be here this weekend for an autograph signing at INDYCAR’s Fan Village and to check in with the paddock herself.

More to come from the rest of the weekend later on.

NHRA: John Force Racing won its 2,500th Funny Car round at Gainesville

Front, from left: Co-crew chiefs Jason McCulloch and Jon Schaffer, John Force, crew chief Mike Neff. (Photo Credit: Gary Nastase and Auto Imagery)
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It wasn’t just a career-best elapsed time run and a final round victory for John Force at last week’s NHRA Gatornationals and Gainesville. It was also the John Force Racing team’s 2,500th Funny Car round win, as well.

The full release is below:

John Force’s Funny Car victory Sunday in the NHRA Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla., was memorable for many reasons, including yet another milestone over the team’s 40-year existence in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series.

After winning all four rounds, and coupled with Robert Hight’s first-round victory, the team achieved the 2,500-round victory threshold for Funny Cars. Force’s final-round win over rookie Jonnie Lindberg sealed the deal.

JFR’s first round victory was June 1, 1979, when Force defeated Tom McEwen at the Cajun Nationals in Baton Rouge, La. Force himself has accounted for just over half of those 2,500 Funny Car round victories, as he now stands at 1,269, with six round wins this season. He defeated Del Worsham, Jack Beckman, and Tommy Johnson Jr. before beating Lindberg on Sunday.

Even more impressive is that JFR’s 2,500 NHRA Funny Car round wins account for more than 20 percent of wins all-time in the class.

“It was the reign of terror that started it all, with Austin Coil, Bernie Fedderly and John Medlen,” Force said. “It was really about a group of guys – it wasn’t about me. I just wrote the checks, but I got to drive one of the baddest hot rods on the planet. We won just about everything.

“But those days are gone now. John Force wants to stay in the game, and now we’ve got Robert Hight, my daughter Courtney, young Austin Prock is coming,” he continued. “I’m really excited about this. We put the band back together. Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones said life’s a drag, but today, life’s not a drag – it’s a drag race, and we won.”

Winning races and elimination rounds is one of the things John Force has done best. Overall, nine drivers have won Funny Car rounds with JFR. The total includes:

  • John Force 1,269
  • Robert Hight 375
  • Tony Pedregon 292
  • Courtney Force 134
  • Mike Neff 118
  • Gary Densham 108
  • Ashley Force Hood 105
  • Eric Medlen 95
  • Phil Burkart Jr. 4

Hight added to his total Sunday, besting Bob Tasca III in the first round with career-bests in time and speed, and has two round wins this season. Courtney Force won her first three rounds of the season at Pomona, making it to the final round.

“It’s amazing, but what’s really amazing is when you look at who has most of those wins,” Hight said. “John Force’s records – he’s so far out in front of everybody else – it’s not even achievable. With the competition level and everything else there is today, these records we keep getting will never, ever be broken. I was lucky enough to get the 200th victory for John Force Racing at Topeka (2011), and that was pretty exciting.”

To do it at Gainesville, Hight said, was special. In the 1990s, for example, Force participated in 37 rounds out of a possible 40, and won 33 of those 40 rounds. He just kept winning … and winning … and winning.

“He’s had good luck at Gainesville,” Hight said. “But I take away from this that all three of our Funny Cars are running good, and we’re not searching for faster cars but right where we want to be. We just need to get a little consistency. I’m just happy to be a little part of those 2,500 round wins. We have three good cars now, and we’re going to get a lot more wins.”

The milestone is more than just a number. It represents tireless efforts by drivers, crew chiefs, team members, fabricators, shop workers, and office staff who have worked with Force since the 1970s.

“If you look at the Tony Pedregons that drove for me, the Eric Medlens, the Gary Denshams, Robert Hight, my girls – if you go down that list, they were all part of that. It wasn’t just about me,” Force said. “I’ve done well in the sport, because I’ve lived it and loved it. I give 110 percent to my sponsors, never 100 percent. We overdeliver, you have to.

“With the cast of characters we have, we’re going to keep hitting them with all we’ve got.”

The team earned its 2,500th round victory across all NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series classes last year. Including the team’s Top Fuel dragster – piloted by Brittany Force and sponsored by Monster Energy – the team’s round victory total stands at 2,593. Brittany Force added another Top Fuel round victory Sunday, and stands at 93 in her career.

The fourth round of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series, the NHRA Nationals, is March 31-April 2 at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in Nevada. John Force Racing has won five races at the spring race in Las Vegas, most recently with John Force running the table in 2015.

F1 on NBC crew previews the upcoming 2017 season

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It’s a new season of Formula 1 that kicks off this weekend with the Australian Grand Prix. All times and streaming details for the new year can be found here, to be watched on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App.

As NBC Sports Group prepares for its fifth season of coverage, all of the broadcast team have made various rounds previewing the season to come (here’s a link to the group’s upcoming live theater presentation at Sellersville Theater next week).

Lead lap-by-lap announcer and host Leigh Diffey spoke to Autoweek in a Q&A, linked here. A quick take on the excitement of the new season is below:

“These cars are faster, will be harder to control in the corners, and will place a high physical demand on the drivers. I can’t wait to see what these cars do these drivers after 58 laps around Albert Park. That’s how I would sell fans on what we’re going to see this season,” Diffey said.

Analysts Steve Matchett and David Hobbs have also previewed the seasons, with both their interviews linked below.

Matchett’s interview with Todd McCandless for Formula1Blog.com is linked here. Hobbs’ interview with Steve Zautke on 105.7 FM The Fan’s (WSSP-Milwaukee) The Final Inspection Show is linked here.

F1 on NBC pit reporter and insider Will Buxton checks in with The Marshall Pruett Podcast, linked here.

Coverage this weekend begins with a live stream of free practice one airing at 9 p.m. ET on Thursday night via the NBC Sports App, which will air at midnight on Friday on NBCSN leading straight into live coverage of free practice two at 1 a.m. ET on NBCSN. The full time breakdown is below.

Hinchcliffe’s DTM test with Mercedes an ‘amazing blast of a lifetime’

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The second half of the James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens “ride swap” took place last week at the Vallelunga circuit in Italy, as Hinchcliffe stepped aboard Wickens’ usual No. 6 HWA AG Mercedes-AMG C63 DTM car for his first few laps in the tin-top beast.

After shaking off a tough end to what had been a dynamic weekend for both himself and the No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda team at the Verizon IndyCar Series’ season opener in St. Petersburg – he’d led early but was caught out on a yellow flag timing and dropped back – Hinchcliffe arrived in Italy on Wednesday to prepare for his run in the DTM car. Wickens tested Hinchcliffe’s IndyCar prior to the St. Petersburg season opener.

The ordinary challenges of getting acclimated to a new car – getting a seat made and adapting to the different driving position – were erased because of a quick and easy fit right into Gary Paffett’s seat.

“It’s funny when we saw the three-week gap between St. Petersburg and Long Beach we thought there’d be down time, and that clearly hasn’t been the case,” Hinchcliffe laughed when speaking to NBC Sports.

“I flew over to arrive a day early, meet the team, and get the lay of the land for the following day. Luckily I fit right into Gary Paffett’s seat. There were very few adjustments needed and it was pretty straightforward. It led into an amazing blast of a time the following day, to rip around Vallelunga.”

The two-hour session that followed saw Hinchcliffe learn a lot, in what is a rare opportunity for North American drivers to have a chance to race in a DTM car.

Hinchcliffe has had some closed-top car experience, but limited outings in either Mazda’s previous Lola Multimatic chassis or Mazda RT24-P prototypes and the Mazda RX-8 aren’t quite comparable to what he saw in the Mercedes.

“Yeah I’d done the RX-8 back in ’12 and the prototype off and on, so it was a very different feel,” he explained. “The seating position is very unique, sitting back in the center. The visuals are very different. Very wide. I think I missed most apexes in right-hand turns the first couple laps, getting used to it.”

But with Wickens as his de facto engineer and driving coach, Hinchcliffe quickly got the hang of it for what would be an intense couple hours.

He’d have a mix of running qualifying simulations, long runs to see how the tires degrade and just general pushing once he got the hang of it. Hinchcliffe being a professional race car driver, it didn’t take long.

“They’ve done such a good job here; you there’s a lot of money spent to make the car magic, and that’s what they’ve done,” Hinchcliffe said. “The tires were very different. We had tire warmers, then did quali sims, did a long run and saw what the (tire) deg could be like. For only two hours of running, it was a pretty nice test.”

“We wanted each other to have a blast,” he added of Wickens’ input and advice. “At Sebring, I gave him some pointers, and we did a track lap in the rental cars. He did the same thing here.

“He’d just been there testing. He did a baseline run in the morning to dial the car in. He was great. He was my engineer for the test, to be honest. He’d pull out the laptop and show data comparisons; look for what to do different and better. It was a lot of fun.”

Hinchcliffe had always tried to keep DTM on his radar from afar, watching the races he could while trying to get to at least one per year. The same goes the other way for Wickens, who tries to make it to at least one IndyCar race per year too, and fully enjoyed his own day in Hinchcliffe’s car.

“When it got announced, I had a bunch of guys say they’d had a chance to test a DTM car. I understand now why it’s one of the most fun series,” he said.

“I’ve followed it more closely with Robbie driving. Having had a taste of the machinery, now you get it even more.”

Formula 1 2017 team preview: Sauber

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Rounding out MotorSportsTalk’s team-by-team preview ahead of the new Formula 1 season, we look at Sauber, the minnow team which bounced back from years of instability to find some strength in 2016.

The arrival of new owners Longbow Finance gave Sauber the chance to rebuild and recruit after a number of losses in the preceding years, while Felipe Nasr’s charge to ninth in Brazil offered a boost in prize money as the team jumped above Manor to P10 in the constructors’ championship.

Sauber now heads into 2017 looking to continue its recent gains, with the new faces at Hinwil eager to make an impact. The goal is now to thrive, not survive.

DRIVERS

9. Marcus Ericsson (Sweden)
94. Pascal Wehrlein (Germany)

CAR

Sauber C36

ENGINE

Ferrari 061

TEAM CHIEFS

Monisha Kaltenborn (CEO/team principal)
Jörg Zander (technical director)

MONTMELO, SPAIN – MARCH 08: Pascal Wehrlein of Germany driving the (94) Sauber F1 Team Sauber C36 Ferrari on track during day two of Formula One winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on March 8, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain. (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)

What went right in 2016: Sauber may have only scored two points, but it both survived the year and was able to secure some much-needed financial backing that kept the team in business. The on-track performances were what we’d expect from a backmarker team, filled with a number of highlights. Marcus Ericsson’s performances through the year were of particular note in the latter half of the season, despite the Swede going under the radar.

What went wrong in 2016: Sauber’s struggles still left its drivers unable to compete on-track, particularly in the run-up to the takeover when updates for the car were hard to find. Sauber failed to get anywhere near the midfield runners in the dry, but again, it perhaps could not have been expected to given the circumstances.

What’s changed for 2017: A number of new faces are at Sauber following an extensive recruitment process. Ex-Audi LMP1 technical chief Jörg Zander has joined the team, while former Haas strategist Ruth Buscombe arrived last fall and is a big, big asset on the pit wall. Pascal Wehrlein has also been signed from Manor, replacing Nasr after his backing fell through, but the team will be racing with the 2016-spec Ferrari power unit. That won’t help come the end of the year.

What they’ll look to accomplish in 2017: In all honesty, it’s hard to see Sauber finishing anywhere but last this year. The rest of the field simply has resources that are too deep to give the Swiss team much chance. Early gains can be made in the first few races when the impact of a year-old power unit will be felt less; some points would be good. But really, this is again a year to battle on and continue to fight for a better future.

MONTMELO, SPAIN – FEBRUARY 27: Marcus Ericsson of Sweden driving the (9) Sauber F1 Team Sauber C36 Ferrari on track during day one of Formula One winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on February 27, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

MST PREDICTIONS

Luke Smith: Sauber can’t really expect much this year. It’s great that the team is on its feet again, and some of the personnel it has on board gives it strength. But the rest of the pack can simply outspend it. The only team it can get close to this year is Haas, I think, and that’s only if the American team gets things seriously wrong this year. P10 in the constructors’ championship with a couple of points – let’s say picked up by Ericsson early in the year – is the ceiling for Sauber.

Tony DiZinno: It’s hard to think of Sauber as the underdog and last team because they’ve been here 25 years, their reputation is of overachieving and they’ve given so many young drivers their start. Yet with Manor’s absence, it’s Sauber that enters as the 10th place team from 2016, but determined to advance from that this season. Marcus Ericsson has become that dependable, career midfielder as the Swede looks to his fourth season. More pressure is on Pascal Wehrlein, the Mercedes junior passed over by his manufacturer to replace Nico Rosberg and by Force India to replace Nico Hulkenberg. Ericsson may not be as easy a target to beat as Wehrlein might think. A couple points finishes should occur for this team and if they can get to eighth or ninth in the constructor’s points, it’ll have been a much better year.

Kyle Lavigne: With a year-old Ferrari power unit, Sauber should have strong reliability. Whether or not the car has the pace to bring them up the grid is another matter. They languished near the bottom of the time sheets on multiple days of testing, but they didn’t seem to experience reliability problems. That trait could prove very beneficial. As hard as it is to believe, McLaren is likely their closest rival as 2017 begins. And, with McLaren struggling with a car that is both slow and unreliable, Sauber has a chance to leapfrog them, so long as their car keeps going.